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The Gin & Tonic

21/02/2015
Written by Gin Foundry

The humble Gin & Tonic might have been around for decades, but 2014 saw a universal rise in affection for the cocktail. With a majority of 68% of people answering that the G&T was their preferred juniper based drink in the largest ever gin survey undertaken – it was a clear favourite. 2014 may have also been the year it finally came of age once more too. Gone are the days of flat, lukewarm tonic from a soda gun, there are now more new tonic brands being launched and entire bars offering Gin and Tonic menus. With Spanish style Copa glasses allowing for experimentation with garnishes, more people are really diving into the complexities of this classic cocktail.

However, where did it all begin? More interestingly, can we learn about what 2015 has to offer by digging through its history? As is often the case with the history of many drinks and medicines invented before the advent of printing presses, the history of quinine and subsequently, tonic water has murky beginnings. There are contrasting stories, mismatched dates and unfortunately – no absolute clarity as to where it all began.

The most common tales of its discovery begin in 17th Century Peru when Spanish colonists discovered a treatment for Malaria in the bark of the Quinquina tree. One account insists that the fateful encounter was the result of the wife of the Spanish Viceroy in Peru, the Countess of Chinchon, falling ill with Malaria. The Quechua (Inca) peoples had long understood the Cinchona tree’s ability to stop shivers in cold temperatures.

Legend has it that in a show of generosity, the native Incas instructed her to drink a potion containing the ground bark of the indigenous “Quinquina” tree, which grew on the slopes of the Andes. The potion worked and she quickly recovered. The colonists took the bark to Spain around 1640 and its medicinal reputation was quickly established.

Other sources state that a Jesuit missionary named Barnabe de Cobo made the first transatlantic delivery in 1632. While less romantic a story compared to the countess and local compassion – allegedly he happened to have discovered the bark’s potency at reducing fevers while on his journey across South America. Whichever the case may be, the ground bark became known as both “Countess’s powder” and “Jesuit’s powder” or simply bark from the “fever tree” throughout Europe.

In the 18th Century Carolus Linnaeus chose to classify the Quinquina tree as genus “cinchona” in honour of the legendary lady. For decades, religious and national rivalries kept quinine from being universally adopted, but eventually everybody began using it and many historians today credit the bark as being a key factor that permitted the European conquest of the tropics.

By 1817, French scientists Pelletier and Caventou found a method for extracting the bark’s most medically powerful compound, quinine. They quickly established a factory to isolate quinine from the bark and sold the drug as a means of preventing Malaria. The ground bark continued to be imported into Europe however and remained highly prized, both in its native form and purified as quinine powder.

In 1825, British officers had already began mixing gin with their daily ration of quinine tonic and unwittingly, had invented a potent precursor to the classic Gin and Tonic. After the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 (or the “Indian Mutiny”), the British Crown took over the governance of India from the British East India Company and strengthened its presence on the subcontinent.

By the late 1850s, the growing number of troops accompanied by their families residing in India helps explain the increased demand for quinine and the rise in popularity of the Gin and Tonic. In many ways – control of the colony required the ability to fight the deadly disease of Malaria, and so many British expatriates in India consumed rations of quinine in the form of “Indian tonic water.”

With many other colonies also laying in Malaria-prone areas, the British and the Dutch needed large quantities of quinine. In the wider context of the botanical’s history and why today’s tonic is no longer as potent as it used to be – there is more to the story of quinine and the Gin and Tonic than the British in India. In her widely acclaimed and highly detailed book “Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens”, Lucile Brockway argues that control of Cinchona – and thus quinine – was key to the expansion of European colonial powers during the nineteenth Century in Asia and Africa.

By mid-Century, the Cinchona- producing areas of South America had become independent republics. Cinchona, grown as wild stocks harvested by native communities, offered an important commodity for their economic development.

For more context on the scale of the trade, in 1860 alone, South America exported around two million pounds of Cinchona bark to Britain and the United States. A South American monopoly combined with over- harvesting pushed Cinchona trees to the brink of extinction. Quinine became as valuable as gold.

With Peru still prohibiting exporting Cinchona seeds, both the British and the Dutch turned to smuggling cinchona seeds out of South America and set upon a race to find a way to supply their own demand.

Both knew that in the race to colonialise new frontiers, control over key resources often dictated who became the victor. Quinine therefore, was an ingredient central to the growth of European imperialism. As Lucile Brockway comments in her description of the uses of quinine rations in the Bengal region of India – the uses were clear and the reasons well-known “production was directed toward the British Establishment, both military and civilian, enabling the British officer and his Indian Soldiers to resist Malaria and stay in fighting trim”. This was true to any other colony and troops stationed in Malaria prone areas.

In the 1860s, Charles Ledger infamously smuggled Cinchona seedlings out of Peru and sold them to the Dutch government. Holland set up large plantations in Java, their colony in Indonesia. By World War I, the Dutch nearly monopolised the quinine trade from their plantations in Java. By the Century’s end, the Dutch controlled most of the Cinchona trade and Indonesia supplied almost 95% of the world’s quinine.

During World War II there was a new tipping point in the story of tonic water. The Japanese occupied Java, creating a need among Allied nations for a new source of quinine. Their solution was two fold – plant Cinchona trees in Africa while scientists tried to create a synthetic variety.

Both initiatives were successful and today a high percentage of natural quinine still comes from Africa, while some prescription quinine is synthetic.

Aside from the Gin and Tonic for a second – quinine was the only effective Malaria treatment for over 300 years. Since World War II, however, quinine was largely supplanted as the go-to cure by other synthetic drugs such as chloroquine that were safer, more effective and easier to make. While quinine kills malarial parasites in red blood cells and alleviates fever, it doesn’t completely destroy Malaria in the body, allowing relapses to occur unless quinine therapy is ongoing.

Back to the G&T and the point of this little historical detour. Following the war, the corporations producing tonic water elected to switch to this cheaper, artificial quinine.

Tonic water rapidly lost the authentic ingredient that had defined it for centuries, and as a result became much less therapeutic over the years. Today, by law, tonic water must contain less than one-tenth of a gram of quinine per litre. However, even in small amounts, quinine is thought to be beneficial in stimulating digestion and easing muscle cramps.

For those looking to make your own at home, it’s worth doing further research and noting that excessive quinine intake can cause side effects collectively known as “Cinchonism”. Cinchonism symptoms include headache, nausea, ringing in the ears, and in more extreme cases, loss of hearing and vision.

By the 1980s, the state of tonic water had deteriorated further. In many cases, not only was the quinine artificial, soft drink companies began sweetening soda and tonic water with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). A controversial, highly processed sugar derived from cornstarch.

In recent years, HFCS has been causing various degrees of concern among health-conscious consumers and some companies have started to remove it from their ranges. Unfortunately, most people drink gin with HFCS- sweetened tonic, which has three times as much sugar as any fruit juice.

Two hundred and thirty two years after Schweppes was founded and with the likes of Fever-Tree revealing the huge gap in the market for a premium offering, many new brands are emerging. While numerically the Gin and Tonic may always be the most popular cocktail by volume – 2014 feels like the year it was also the gin cocktail that attracted the most buzz. Negroni’s, Martini’s and other cocktails still have their cult followings but the G&T has the right to lay claim as the king of gin cocktails.

So what will happen in 2016? Is this set to continue? Perhaps. It is hard to see a reduction in popularity given the investment and furore new entries to the market are putting in place.

Will 2016 finally be the year where tonic syrups are adopted by the masses? They are no new invention as bars the world over have made their own. Nevertheless almost none have crossed over into successful commercial products. Could this be the point at which they establish themselves in home cabinets?

Perhaps more interestingly – will tastes change in the next 12 months? Will there be a move to less boozy ratios perhaps? Only time will tell if preferred glassware, garnishes and ratios will change. We will be doing a direct comparison to measure it one year on, using the same questions from Gin Foundry’s survey to find out but let us know what you think on Twitter too – we’re always keen to hear of new tonics, garnishes and pairings.